11.16.2013 What’s Up with the Spinach?

Roughly once a week for the last five months in the white room, I’ve been starting spinach in flats.  During June, July and August, I was mostly trying to germinate the seed I had on hand to see what was still viable and what was not.  But I did buy new seed from the big box stores.  Germination was always poor and what managed to leave the white room as a seedling, either bolted right away or got eaten by bugs or slugs.  It has not been a good year for spinach.

I never planted any of it out into the main garden.  Instead, I would start the seeds in flats and once established in their soil blocks I would move them to my “shade house” (a vacant chicken tractor draped in burlap).  The shade house suffered a plague of slugs for a while that went away when I started sprinkling eggs shells around.  Then I suspect I had an invasion of flea beetles as I was getting a lot of spinach with leaves that looked like they’d been ripped by hail (of which we had none) or leaves that were pale and anemic and symptomatic of leaf miners.

Then, it got too warm for spinach and most of what I had bolted, before I was even able to harvest a single leaf.  So I ordered some heat resistant spinach and continued with the weekly planting cycle, knowing eventually, I would get my hoop house up and I could transplant the starts into that.  I ended up having 7 flats of spinach stuck in the shade house and I do mean stuck.  My flats are regular nursery flats that are lined with newspaper to keep the soil from falling through the webbing.  The shade house has no exposed soil.  Instead the earth is covered with landscape fabric. It takes plants about two weeks in the shade house to get their roots through the newspapers and the landscape fabric and down into the ground.  Moving the plants after that really sets them way back. So 7 flats are now rooted in to the ground.

Two weeks ago, all that spinach was looking sad and buggy.  I went through and picked out all the nastiness and salvaged about a half a pound of beat up spinach that I’ve been using in smoothies.  Last week, the shade house spinach looked much better, was putting up new growth and I harvested almost a pound. I also went through the plants in the hoop house from four flats that I’d transplanted two weeks earlier. This little bit of hand pruning was enough to let the spinach know I loved it and it just perked up.

But all is not well in spinach land.  Two weeks ago, I stepped into the white room to find an entire flat of 3 week old spinach starts that were ready for transplant were no longer ready for transplanting.  They were gone!  Most of the tender starts had been cut off about an inch above the soil line and all the green parts were gone.

I searched that flat looking everywhere for the cutworm that had such effrontery.  I never found him, but he’s still my chief suspect.  I’d had moths in the white room so I started plugging holes in an effort to keep them out.  The white room will never be air tight and I suspect I will never ever achieve a total and permanent victory over the rodents that have tunnels into every stall in the barn.  Still, my efforts kept the moths out for two whole weeks.  In the meantime, I covered all remaining flats with plastic domes and, in the off chance the culprit was a rodent, I put one flat under the dirt sifter.

Dirt sifters are so versatile.  The screen isn't small enough to keep out moths, but in case there is a mouse in the house with an appetite for spinach, it's not going to get this flat.

Dirt sifters are so versatile. The screen isn’t small enough to keep out moths, but in case there is a mouse in the house with an appetite for spinach, it’s not going to get this flat.

A week passed with no more damage.  Below freezing temperatures outside definitely put a dent in the flying bug population.  Thinking the danger of infestation was over, I removed plastic domes.  A few days later, I lost another flat of spinach.  And today I found another moth in the white room, beating itself to death against the fluorescent lights.  At this point I am still thinking this is cutworm damage and I am crossing my fingers that I haven’t introduced those nasties into my hoop house.

While all this stuff is going on in the white room, I am starting seeds, transplanting out to the hoop house and discovering I don’t much like transplanting spinach.  At three weeks old, the plants are still very fragile.  Because the seed leaves and the first true leaves are absurdly long, the plants get all tangled up inside the seed flat and untangling them without damage is a time consuming thing.

So I had this brilliant idea.  Direct seeding!  I normally avoid direct seeding as a general rule because directly seeded seeds have this nasty habit of disappearing into the garden and not doing anything.  I always feel cheated out of the money I spent on seeds.  But at this time of year, weedy things aren’t really interested in growing and the few that are popping up in the hoop house are easy to identify and eliminate.  Spinach might actually have a chance.

So on November 4th, I dropped 40 seeds each of 3 different spinach varieties into the ground.  Twelve days later only a third have germinated.  (By day 14, I was up to 50%) Pretty disappointing.  I have become accustomed to the 90-95% germination rate that I now get in the white room.

Lettuce to the right. Kale, chard and other bassicas things to the left.  Spinach in the center toward the bottom half and more lettuce in the center top section of the picture,  The bricks in the middle row are to support 2x4's that will bolster the hoop house against snow loads.

Spinach is in the center aisle toward the bottom half of the picture. The bare space in the center aisle is where I directly seeded 3 varieties of spinach. About a third had germinated when I took this picture, but it is too small to see here.

Now that I think about it, that last paragraph is simply astonishing.  Back on March 1st of this year, I seeded my first flat of spinach with Matador (2011) and Bloomsdale Longstanding (2013) seed.  It was a total failure.  Nothing germinated.  On June 8th, I tried again and got partial germination but even as cool as this past summer was, it was too hot for spinach.  That flat went directly from seed to seed, if you know what I mean.

I had similar issues on June 14th.  Then I invested in seed of more heat tolerant varieties and set up the shade house.  While my germination rates continued to improve, the spinach was really resentful of the slightest bit of heat.  So here I am in November and heat isn’t much of a problem.  I’ve moved to more winter hardy varieties.  For now, I am working primarily with F1 hybrids, and avoiding the heirloom varieties, until I learn more about what makes spinach tick.

The main lesson I’ve learned from lettuce and spinach this year is seed quality is everything and lettuce and spinach seed from Wal-Mart or Lowes and similar stores is a pure waste of time and money.

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